Suppose one takes a photograph of a book page. There's no artistic interpretation, the result is effectively a copy of the page. The book is not copyrighted. Can the photograph be copyrighted by the photographer, according to USA law?

The question becomes more interesting and relevant if the book is hundreds of years old, and not easily accessible, e.g. a codex. The same question could apply to a photograph or reproduction of a painting.


1 Answer 1


It appears that I found the answer. Such photographs are not copyrightable in the USA, but the situation may be different in other countries.

From the second link,

The Bridgeman Art Library had made photographic reproductions of famous works of art from museums around the world (works already in the public domain.) The Corel Corporation used those reproductions for an educational CD-ROM without paying Bridgeman. Bridgeman claimed copyright infringement.

The Court ruled that reproductions of images in the public domain are not protected by copyright if the reproductions are slavish or lacking in originality.

In their opinion, the Court noted: "There is little doubt that many photographs, probably the overwhelming majority, reflect at least the modest amount of originality required for copyright protection ... But 'slavish copying', although doubtless requiring technical skill and effort, does not qualify."

  • \$\begingroup\$ If you do want to delve into the realm of copyright law, you might find the Legal Handbook for Photographers a useful resource. The author is a intellectual property lawyer and has also written on astrophotography. \$\endgroup\$
    – user13451
    Commented Oct 10, 2014 at 3:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ It's a shame that the mild originality that is found in a bad copy is copyrightable while the great care and skill evidenced in a "slavish" copy is not. ie the greater artisan skills evidenced by the precision copier are penalised. Methinks the court lacks a photographer gene. Presumably I may freely copy the Corel CD :-). (Maybe they recopied it badly on purpose). \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 10, 2014 at 10:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ @RussellMcMahon: I wish legislators would define a "restoration copyright" concept which would provide "slavish copiers" with a few years of copyright-protected exclusivity. If someone goes through the trouble of tracking down the only extant copy of a George Melies film, that person should not be entitled to be the only one who can profit from that film for the next 95 years, but should be entitled to some term of copyright exclusivity on the work which for all practical purposes only exists as a consequence of his efforts. \$\endgroup\$
    – supercat
    Commented Nov 21, 2014 at 20:17

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